Jeff Hobbs and Alex Kotlowitz: Where Empathy Is Born

If you’re going to tell the story of a man, tell the whole story.

Jeff Hobbs had our attention from the first line of his author’s note for his extraordinary and compelling new book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Hobbs is a talented writer who’s clearly comfortable reporting from the grey area — an all-too-human terrain where choices are made, explanations sought, and consequences felt, often without answers  — balancing compassion with insight and dogged reportage, all told in powerful prose.

As we followed Hobbs’s struggle to understand why his close friend’s life played out as it did, we were reminded of another indelible piece of reportage, one that set the bar in so many ways for long-form narratives, reminding readers everywhere that nonfiction done well is an art: There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. The Rivers family — especially younger brothers Pharaoh and Lafayette — and the realities of their lives in Chicago’s Henry Horner Houses were imprinted on more than one reader’s memory.

Alex Kotlowitz isn’t the only notable talent to share our love of Hobbs’s work: earlier this week, director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer and Training Day) announced plans to film an adaptation of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.

Here are Kotlowitz and Hobbs on getting out the way of the story, the realities of reportage — and reviews — and so much more, starting with a simple query for the B&N Review: “How do you find your story? – Miwa Messer

Jeff Hobbs: This story wasn’t found so much as it was given – given to me first by being paired randomly as roommates freshman year in college with an unassuming guy named Rob Peace, and then almost a decade later, by being granted permission to write in depth about a life that shouldn’t have ended so soon. It’s hard to describe the pull I felt in the wake of Rob’s funeral in the spring of 2011. At the time I was working energetically on something else, a novel, but suddenly that energy vanished, and all I could think about was Rob, all I could write were these personal essays, shared only with my wife, that seemed to revolve around the perhaps selfish or at least self-aggrandizing realization that, though I’d lived with the man for four years, though he’d bailed me out of fistfights and eased me through heartbreak and spent a few hundred hours talking, though he’d been a groomsman in my wedding and a kind of touchstone through young adulthood, I probably hadn’t known him that well at all in the end. And after reaching out to many mutual friends I learned that most people in his orbit, even those involved intimately with his day to day, hadn’t either. All we were certain of was that Rob, the human being, was a far greater, more complicated soul than some petty thug, some cliché of squandered potential. Potential was squandered, of course, but we knew he wasn’t a thug, and he certainly wasn’t a cliché. This collective realization and the conflicts surrounding it, I suppose, were at the heart of finding the story – answering the question: how and why did this guy, this remarkable intellect who was adored and loved by so many, end up so isolated? And was there any possible worth, any remnant of positivity or even hope, to take away from this tragedy?

Alex, I’m so curious to hear your answer to this question. The preface of your book begins with the pronoun “I,” and basically does provide an answer, in that it explains the circumstances by which you met the Rivers family and ultimately came to write this magnificent, seminal book – the most human nonfiction book I’ve ever read. After the preface, you disappear, and yet you’re still there, in the most artful of ways, in the prose, the observation, the towering sensitivity in an environment embodied by its capacity to desensitize. I guess I’m asking: what happened between the end of your preface and the beginning of Chapter One?

Alex Kotlowitz: Jeff, First, I want to shout to the world: Read The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace! It is one remarkable tale, one filled with love and pain and unremitting honesty. Talk about artful. The beauty of your book is in the deep, tenacious reporting — and the lyricism of your prose. I, for one, couldn’t let go of the story.

As you suggest, more often than not we don’t find stories, they find us. We stumble upon them in both expected and unexpected ways. Maybe it’s reading a newspaper article that in the end raises more questions than it answers. Or as in your case it’s through personal experience. In the case of There Are No Children Here, I initially had the notion of returning to Atlanta where I’d worked in a settlement house for a year to find out what had happened to some of the kids I’d befriended. I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal at the time based in Chicago, and logistically it just wasn’t possible, and so I headed to the Henry Horner Homes, just a couple of miles from my then-office downtown. And it was there, hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club, that I first got to know Lafeyette and then his brother Pharoah.  I’ll confess that when I went to Horner, I thought I was pretty savvy when it came to inner-city life, but I was completely thrown off balance by what I encountered — by the both the violence and the deplorable conditions of public housing. And I was ashamed. How could I not know? It was that shame and anger that drove me to write the book.

But I think your question is a different and ultimately more interesting one, which is why after using the first person in the preface I chose to get out of the way and tell the boys’ story without acknowledging my presence. Very simply, I worried that if I was in the book, the story would be twisted into a tale of a white man coming into the lives of these two African-American boys, that it would be twisted into a narrative of the great white hope, a tale steeped in falsehoods and presumptuousness. In fact, when Oprah bought the film rights to the book, she wanted to make a movie with my character in it. I agreed to sell the rights with one condition: that my character not be a part of the film. That was not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted, as best I could, to get inside the heads of these two boys, to understand what pushed and pulled at them, to chronicle the tension of partaking in utterly childish things while managing — or trying to manage — the often brutal forces bearing down on them, to mark the utter abandonment of their community. More than anything, I just wanted to tell a good story — and my presence would’ve been a complete and unnecessary distraction.

Your narrative necessitated your presence. It’s such a personal story, and one of the things I so deeply admired is that it would’ve been easy to write more of a memoir, but you chose a different and more challenging route. You sought out friends and family of Peace’s, all in the spirit of discovery, of discovering the truth behind what happened to him. Did you find it hard to learn things about your friend that seemed inconsistent with what you knew of him?

Hobbs: The hardest thing didn’t have as much to do with consistency as it did with revealing my ignorance of how compartmentalized Rob Peace’s life was, how he’d walled off all these various struggles – his imprisoned father, for instance, of whom he rarely spoke, as well as money and difficult loyalties and larger existential questions regarding purpose in life. I knew his father was in jail, I knew that money was always a question for him, I knew that he was impossibly loyal and that he dwelled more than most on a greater purpose. All of this was consistent. But I was never aware of the details, the depth. Nothing was more affecting during my research than sitting in the bank of Plexiglas windows at New Jersey State Prison, speaking to a friend of Rob’s late father, knowing that Rob spent many hours at the same bank of windows speaking to his father, Skeet. Not exactly walking a mile in his shoes, but it was the same stuffy air, the same rarefied atmosphere, the same smells. As a friend, the discovery of the details underneath what I thought I knew about him was crushing, brought me back to so many random dorm room conversations, over a decade ago, during which, if I’d dug a little deeper, phrased a question with more nuance or asked another, harder question, I’d have at least been aware of more. I’m not saying that I, or anyone, could have “saved” Rob – and that’s a troubling question that underlies this book, whether or not it’s possible to save someone, and why a man of Rob Peace’s talent might have needed saving – but regardless, awareness is so valuable. At the very least, it’s where empathy is born. Alex, you accomplished just this. Never, or at least very rarely, has a book illuminated the value of awareness, of details, of confronting hard questions, as yours did. I must say that I’m surprised to hear you say that it came from a space of shame and anger, only because your book is so tender, focused on complicated and moving human relationships far more than statistics. We all have some idea of the statistics, but I’ve never before or since read a grocery list of a single mother in the projects living on welfare. It’s so gently written, which makes for a powerful effect in light of the horrors you document. What occurs to me now is how remarkable it is that you didn’t let those feelings – shame, anger – contaminate your work, that you never leaped out of the pages to make broad proclamations and condemn all of us bystanders and bloviate on systemic failures. The failures are there, of course, documented in a much more impactful way, at shoulder height, on the playground, in the basements and stairwells and apartments, in the schools, in the cars of commuters passing by, above all in the love shared between two brothers and their mother. This is storytelling at its greatest capacity, and it also brings us to a tricky component, that of being “the storyteller,” particularly in the realm of nonfiction where actual lives are involved. How did you separate your personal attachment to the Henry Horner Homes and the Rivers family, which must have grown heartbreakingly close over time, from the guy at the typewriter telling their story, punctuating, making structural decisions, word choices, consulting the dictionary here and there, knowing that as you did so, Lafayette and Pharaoh were a few miles away doing whatever they were doing? That was probably the biggest struggle on my end – being so immersed in a life while simultaneously distilling that life into the abstract space of a word document – and I’m wondering as to your process there. Because I found it really rough, certainly isolating, even damning at times, and yet it’s the difference between reaching people or not — between having a point to the whole thing, or not. We both told unknown stories, and hundreds of books are published every month based on known stories, so those hours on the keyboard carried even greater weight.

Kotlowitz: Jeff, You’ve cut to the essence of what we do: which is, very simply, tell stories. How else to engage people? How else to find empathy? All I hoped for is that people after reading the book would end up in the same spot I did, feeling both shame and anger at the conditions of this sliver of America. But you also speak to the tremendous responsibility of telling other people’s stories. I’ve been doing this for some 35 years now, telling stories of people who have hadn’t reason or the opportunity to share their stories publicly before, and the burden of getting it right doesn’t ease up. With Lafeyette and Pharoah, I got quite close to them. I cared for them deeply. Still do. And so when I sat down to write I had to distance myself somewhat, mostly because I needed to remind myself that in end I wasn’t writing for them. I was writing for everyone else. It’s why I think memoir is so tough to get right. Your loyalty is divided, between family and friends on the one hand, and your reader on the other. I’m working on another nonfiction book now. It’s a tapestry of stories around the violence in our cities, an effort to understand how or if people find meaning in the brutality around them, and what it says about the rest of us. In any case, one of the people I’m writing about, a woman whose son was murdered, just texted me the other day. She hadn’t heard from me in a while and wanted to make sure I was okay. I should point out what’s probably obvious, but she’s a remarkable woman, someone who’s very much still grieving but hasn’t let that grief deplete her. But I mention this small moment because it makes me think of the delicate balance we walk. I had, indeed, pulled back because I’ve begun to write, to make sense what I’ve seen and heard, and so needed some distance. And I worried, too, that I had become an imposition, that I’d intruded in her life in a way that felt accelerated and unnaturally intimate. I so enjoy her company that I was relieved to get her text. I’m planning to call her this week to get together.

Switching gears for a moment: As an artist, as a writer, our work life can be both exhilarating and terrifying. What we do is so public. And so there’s little hiding our triumphs and our failures. You’re in the midst of it now, sending a book out into the world. Reviews have started to appear. You’re undoubtedly being interviewed about the book. I’ve always felt that the one thing reviewers don’t get about nonfiction is the tedium and the sweat that goes into reporting out a story. This is your first work of nonfiction. What do you think reviewers and interviewers are getting and aren’t getting about your book?

Hobbs: Thanks Alex, this is a difficult experience, and any advice you have would be beyond valued. I could go on about it because, as you said, I’m experiencing it now for the first time. The simple answer is that yes, reviews are coming out and interviews are happening, yes I pay attention to them, yes I react. This is the most important story I will ever tell, professionally and personally. At the moment, I have been disappointed at the way reviews predictably tie together some variation of the words, poverty, Yale, drugs, murder without making much reference to the humor, the heart, the humanity of Rob Peace – what he had in a tremendous mother who gave him an education and so much more, rather than what he lacked in means and judgment. It’s interesting, the word “ghetto” is used only twice in my book, once in the lingo used to describe the bank of desktop computers in a college dorm basement, and the other in a conversation Rob had about the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. But I don’t think a review has been published yet that doesn’t include “ghetto” in the first sentence, referring to Rob’s home. There’s also the oversimplification of stating that there were “two Robs.” There weren’t. There was one Rob, and the apparent duality of his life was just the messiness of packaging everything he valued into a single consciousness. The fact is, it’s messy being a person. But media outlets don’t care much for “messy.” That’s not a dig, and I’m not upset – the elements I’m speaking of are the very ones that necessitated a book rather than an article to bring to light, and it’s hard to pare that down in the space of a few hundred words – but again this is nonfiction. His family reads this stuff, his friends and teachers, his mother, and it’s not easy for anyone to re-experience this loss. There are also passages in the book that people in his life didn’t know about, shouldn’t have to know about, but speak to how moving and complicated his life was, the just mentioned messiness. As a friend I wouldn’t have included a lot of that, but as a journalist I had the responsibility to. I feel the weight, which again is why I hope to see the positivity and achievement and love presented with the focus the book lends them. Then there’s the bigger shadow, ever hovering – and I’m curious if you struggle with this as well: that I have taken a human life and made it into a book, what for lack of a better word we might call “art.” That was a years-long process. As you said, it’s incredibly taxing in so many ways, but it’s also affirming, there’s so much purpose, so much support and human interaction and shared caring, it was a kind of enchantment at times. But now that book has been bound in cardboard, with cover art and flap copy and reviews assigned by strangers – now it’s a business “product,” I believe a dignified product with positive intention, but a product nonetheless, one I am tasked with promoting. Do you recall that experience yourself, once There Are No Children Here was published? Your book was so well-received, deservedly so, but at the same time must have thrust you as the expert into a national conversation on poverty. That’s a lot of pressure. Plus – and pardon the bluntness here – you’re white, as am I, that’s a whole other uncomfortable area. My understanding is that you handled the pressure with grace. But were you prepared for that? Writing a book is something we do alone, in the quiet. Sending a book into the world is, if we are fortunate enough to be noticed, entirely different. And when the book happens to be current, vital, perhaps controversial…the moment feels immense, even though I keep repeating to myself and to others, “It’s just a book.”

Kotlowitz: It is, indeed, just a book. But with a smidgen of luck it’ll be around for a while and read by a few which is, in the end, what we hope for, of course. But it does mean that we’ve set the narrative of those we’re writing about. And as I said earlier that sometimes feels like a heavy burden to carry. Reviewers often out of necessity distill the plot-line and the characters. All nuance is lost. And, indeed, one worries then that people who you’ve come to know and admire lose their complexity and become types rather than the real, albeit often messy, people we know. I, too, feel protective. It’s funny, reviewers and readers saw LaJoe, the boys’ mother, as either a heroic figure or a neglectful mother, and yet she was both. And that was hard for people to hold in their head. There’s this story of the time Nelson Algren took Simone de Beauvoir to a bar on Chicago’s skid row. Beauvoir later wrote about the scene at the bar describing a drunk dancing with what she described as “a fat floozy.” Beauvoir had turned to Algren, and remarked, “It’s beautiful.” Algren was apparently astounded by her comment. “With us,” Algren told her, “Ugliness and beauty, the grotesque and the tragic, and even good and evil, go their separate ways. Americans do not like to think extremes can mingle.” But of course they can. And they do, as they did with Robert Peace. Algren knew that better than anyone. And I suppose that anyone telling stories — fiction or nonfiction — knows, or should know that, as well.

You ask at the end of your entry if I got called as an expert on poverty. I did. Still do. And it makes me squirm. I’m not a policy maker or an academic or an activist. I’m just a storyteller. I go out into the world and try, as best I can, to call it as I see it. And, yes, by the nature of what I do, I’m always outsider, if not by race, by class, be gender, by politics, by religion. You name it.  And part of what we’re after, I suppose, is as best we can to inhabit the lives of others, to understand what it means to be them. To understand who they are, in all their complexity and richness and contradictions. I don’t always get there, but I try to get as close as I can. You got there with Peace. There was in your friend, both the heroic and the tragic, which you captured so beautifully. Algren, I think, would’ve thought so, as well.

Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program was established in 1990 to showcase works of exceptional literary quality. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year, and the Discover Awards are presented each March with assistance from of six notable authors.  Click here for the complete catalogue, current season’s selections, Discover Awards, and  submission guidelines.

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